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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Weeks of guided prayer

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

One of the terms I rarely hear used in URC circles is “Week of Guided Prayer”. We talk about quiet days and either individually-guided or group retreats, but weeks of guided prayer don’t figure so prominently.

For an individually-guided retreat, a person goes to a retreat centre where they spend much of the time either praying or relaxing and meet daily with a guide who accompanies them on the journey of the retreat, often by being a sounding-board and by offering suggestions for prayer and ways of praying.

For a week of guided prayer, a person stays at home, but meets daily with a prayer guide. The dynamic is not quite the same as that of a retreat because people don’t withdraw to the same extent from their normal activities, but the anticipation is that a little more prayer happens than usual and that there is a chance to explore new ways of praying. For many people this is their first experience of having someone to talk with about their prayer life.

There’s a disarmingly honest moment in John Robinson’s Honest to God where he recalls the way the subject of prayer came up at theological college: not as something formally taught, but more as the subject of awkward late-night conversations between students nervously admitting their sense of inadequacy. My sense is that we rarely talk about private prayer: the opportunity for a number of conversations over a focussed period of time offers a chance to do that.

There are many people who, with the best will in the world, simply can’t go away for a week on retreat. Effectively taking the retreat to them makes some of the experience possible. That could make a week of guided prayer sound like a second-class retreat. Actually it’s the opposite. The call is to “pray as you can, not as you can’t”: if it is not practical to go on retreat, God is in the realities of life, and this is an invitation to meet God where one is. If someone does something genuinely seeking to have an experience of God, that desire itself makes the experience likely to happen.

Typically a week of guided prayer happens either in a single church, or in several in reasonably close proximity. In practice this means that a number of people from the same local church are likely to take part. This is really helpful because there’s not the sense of denominational disloyalty that can arise when one person goes to a retreat centre from a different tradition.

Running a week of guided prayer

In spirituality there is never a sense that “one size fits all”, so it is important to tailor the details of week of guided prayer to the context where it will happen.

It is usually wise to offer it somewhere other than the church where one is in membership, which makes it easier to be objective. It also makes it easier for confidences to be respected and seen to be respected, both during the week and afterwards.

It’s essential to have the support of the minister and elders, and to give all the congregation the chance to choose to take part — though recognising that there is a limit to the number of people any one prayer guide is wise to take. Given the smallness of the URC it’s more-or-less inevitable that the prayer guides would include people from a variety of traditions, but with some experience of spiritual direction. People’s daily routines vary, so there need to be possible prayer-guiding times during the day and evening. Although it’s normal to talk of a “week of guided prayer”, this is not set in stone: there should be flexibility about the actual number of days.

For those involved in giving the week, there does need to be adequate supervision as well as team meetings where appropriate things can be aired.

There’s no set format, but there are some interesting ideas in John Veltri’s Orientations: the relevant part of his web site is orientations.jesuits.ca/bob/retreat.htm — though many spiritual directors would want to sit very loose to the details he proposes, and especially to his suggested themes for the days of a week of guided prayer.

The week of guided prayer is not right for all circumstances, but can be a helpful way of enriching the prayer life of a range of people within one congregation (or several neighbouring ones).